The use of the Term Hallucinogen

Publication Year: 
1997

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”Hallucinogen” is the designation used by the U.S. Government in its drug laws and also the most common term in medical research. It fixes on the sensory distortion and enhancement, especially visual, that is one of the most striking effects of some of these drugs at low doses, in the early stages of intoxication, or during the first few drugs experiences. The point is that most drug-induced hallucinations are effects of overdose, associated with metabolic disturbances, major autonomic changes (in heart rate blood pressure, breathing, and so on), delirium, and eventual stupor or amnesia; drugs like LSD produce perceptual changes without these side effects, and can therefore be defined as primarily hallucinogenic. Even Humphry Osmond, the inventor of the word “psychedelic,” eventually adopted “hallucinogen.” Nevertheless, there are several objections to the term. By referring only to perceptual effects, it understates the importance of mood and thought changes; and the tendency to prejudge the value of the experience. The word “hallucination” has narrowed in meaning. It is derived through Latin from the Greek aluein, “to be distraught,” a term used for sorcerers' voyages and other mental wanderings. Now it is usually taken to mean perceiving imaginary objects as real ones, but that is rare with or without drugs. Used to describe the estheticized perception or fascination effect, enhanced sense of meaningfulness in familiar objects, vivid closed-eye imagery, visions in subjective space, or visual and kinesthetic distortions induced by drugs like LSD, “hallucination” is far too crude. If hallucinations are defined by failure to test reality rather than merely as bizarre and vivid sense impressions, these drugs are rarely hallucinogenic. In one study, experimental subjects given a choice of eighteen categories to describe their experience placed “hallucinations” last (Ditman and bailey 1967). The awkward terms “pseudohallucinogenic” (referring to images in subjective space or otherwise distinguishable from external reality) and “illusionogenic” have been proposed as substitutes. But many of the most powerful and sought-after effects can be called hallucinations or illusions only by stretching definitions to the breaking point or participation in symbolic dramas, loss of the unity of body and self, quasi-religious exaltation, or ecstatic union with other people or the cosmos. Finally, some drugs that we intend to discuss (and which are classified as hallucinogens under federal law), Like MDA, MMDA, and DOET, can enhance self-awareness and intensify feelings or restore memories without producing sensory distortions at all.
The term “psychodysleptic” (mind-distorting or mind-disrupting), introduced in 1959 (Brimblecombe and Pinder 1975, p. 4), has been popular in Europe and Latin America. Although it is more comprehensive (or vaguer) than “psychotomimetic” or “hallucinogenic,” it is subject to some of the same objections. In any case, its unfamiliarity in this country makes it inappropriate for our purposes. Another term that conveys the range of feeling and thought produce by the drugs and also has a pleasantly poetic ring is “phantastica” (or, the English adjective form, “phantasticant”), invented by one famous student of psychoactive drugs, Luwig lewin, and endorsed by two others, Albert Hofmann and Richard E. Schultes (Shultes and Hofmann 1973, p. 7). “Oneirogenic” (causing dreams), a term first used by the nineteenth-century physician Moreau de Tours in his study of hashish, has not become popular, although it is more accurate than 'hallucinogenic' as a description of some aspects of the experience. Among words less committed to a specific descriptive content than “psychotomimetic” and “hallucinogenic,” only “psycholitic” and “psychedelic” have gained any currency. “Psycholytic” is derived from Greek roots meaning “mind loosening” and has become associated with a form of therapy in which small does of LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin are used to aid in psychoanalysis and psychoanalyticaly oriented psychotherapy, presumably by breaking down ego defenses and bringing up repressed feelings and thoughts from the unconscious. It is inappropriate for us to use the term because, like “pschodysleptic,” it is unfamiliar in the United States, and also because it has become too closely associated with the models and therapeutic methods of psychoanalysis to serve as a neutral descriptive classification. It identifies a kind of therapy more than a class of drugs; like “psychotomimetic,” it has come to imply a recommendation about how the drugs should and should not be used.

pp. 6-8 Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered by Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar (1997)

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